2024 Hatsu Basho spotlight: Why did Ura have so much trouble with the san'yaku?
Let's take a deep dive and analyze one of sumo's most interesting, and fun to watch, characters.
The dust has well and truly settled on the 2024 Hatsu Basho, where Terunofuji lifted his ninth makuuchi championship title. It was a memorable tournament, with a compelling four (and then three) horse race in the final few days.
The tournament was maligned, however, by injuries that struck up and down the banzuke. That resulted in lots of ‘what ifs’ and ‘what a shames’. Because of this a bit of gloss was taken off the entire basho, for me anyway. The tournament also saw a lot of rikishi under-perform and struggle. That brings us to target of our spotlight: Ura.
In January Ura ascended to the rank of komusubi for the first time in his injury-plagued career. I was delighted by this promotion, but also rueful in wondering what might have been had Ura been able to stay healthy and hit this ranking as he was entering his prime (not falling away from it).
Ura ended the tournament with a 6-9 record, proving that — despite being must see-TV and a gift for all sumo fans — he’s not cut out for the san’yaku ranks.
But what went wrong for Ura? Well, now it’s time to figure it all out.
Just like I did with Takakeisho last year, I’m going to break down each of Ura’s bouts; watching the gifs over and over again and noting what I see in a semi stream of consciousness.
Hopefully, once I get past Day 15 I’ll have an answer to my question.
Let’s get into it.
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Day 1 vs. Terunofuji
On Day 1 Ura was given the ‘honour’ of facing Terunofuji (the eventual winner of the tournament). It’s a terrible match-up for him, given Terunofuji’s size advantage and his grappling intelligence. This loss sunk Ura’s life-time record versus the yokozuna to 1-6.
I think Ura starts this bout rather well. He gets solid contact off the tachiai and is not pushed that far back by Terunofuji (initially). He’s not able to move Terunofuji back, either, but he survives the opening clash and is able to circle away and get Terunofuji on the move (where he is not strongest, thanks to his knee surgeries). Ura’s hopes at doing something tricksy along the boundary are squashed, though, once Terunofuji decides to isolate his right arm.
When Terunofuji puts on that lock, he forces Ura to stop thinking about winning a game and rather focus on self-preservation. There’s no one who does that better than Terunofuji (or as often).
With Ura focusing purely on saving his elbow and/or shoulder, Terunofuji is easily able to wheel him around and push him over the straw.
There’s not much Ura could have done in this situation. I suppose you’d argue that the best remedy here would be not to get your arm stuck in the first place. But that’s easier said than done. And this isn’t the first time Terunofuji has caught Ura in a position like this (he has two kimedashi wins over him). Terunofuji’s anatomy means he often has opponent’s arms snug under his own armpits and he has the strength and acumen to make them pay dearly for it.
Ura may have also been nervous on his first bout as an upper ranked fighter, but even if he was cool as a cucumber he would was likely to lose in this match-up. So it’s hard to hold this 0-1 start against the Peach Prince.
Day 2 vs. Hokutofuji
On Day 2 Ura met a reinvigorated Hokutofuji. Sumo’s most intense man seemed mostly heeled from the injuries that struck last year and he put in some great performances before being hit with yet another injury later in the tournament.
There’s a lot to fault Ura for in this match, unfortunately. Just like on Day 1, Ura gets a good start here (a great start, in fact). He went in low, as he always does, with both his knees and arms primed for impact. The result is Hokutofuji, a very hard charger, being blocked off the tachiai and immediately put on the back foot when Ura pushes off his knees.
Ura is able to power Hokutofuji back to the straw, but then he opts for the spectacular when only the mundane was required. Despite having Hokutofuji dead to rights along the edge, Ura flips over, hoping he has generated enough force to push Hokutofuji out the rest of the way.
The replay below shows how doing so actually weakened his forward momentum. Instead of driving through Hokutofuji’s right leg with his left hand, Ura lets his left arm swing down and away to generate his body’s rotation. If he had kept his feet down, his hands on his opponent and driven forwards, I’m certain that he would have gotten the win here.
Here Ura trades a victory for some ooohs and aaahs from the audience and an 0-2 record to start his basho.
Day 3 vs. Hoshoryu
On Day 3 we see Ura trying the special/bizarre again in a situation where a more fundamental approach could have earned a victory.
His tachiai against Hoshoryu is a lot like what we saw on Day 2 versus Hokutofuji. Hoshoryu comes in and is met with bent knees and elbows, ready to absorb and push back.
Not only is Ura able to move Hoshoryu backwards, he’s able to get a solid grip on the ozeki’s mawashi. Then it all goes wrong. Instead of keeping Hoshoryu in front of him, Ura decides to position himself and his opponent so they are parallel to each other.
We know what Ura’s thinking here (spoiler alert for Day 15). He wants to throw Hoshoryu backwards for a crowd-pleasing throw. Hoshoryu is just too good to be caught with something like that, though.
Once Ura falls in love with this throw attempt, he ignores what’s happening with his left leg and Hoshoryu’s right leg. Hoshoryu is a master at throws when he is able to get his leg on either side of an opponent’s leg and create a fulcrum there. Because of how Ura is trying to guide Hoshoryu, Hoshoryu is unable to get a trip with his leg on the inside position. Watch what he does to counter this. He deftly takes his leg out from in front of Ura’s left leg and positions it behind. In doing so he creates a fulcrum with his right thigh. Then, a hard change of stances, paired with a heavy push, is able to send Ura careening over that right hip and onto the floor.
Ura’s biggest mistake here is committing to this awkward throw attempt. If he instead focused on what had the greatest chance of success (not greatest chance of a highlight reel) he would have gripped onto Hoshoryu’s belt closer to the right side of his hip and not worked his hand across the small of his back and then opposite hip. If he held a strong grip on the ride side, he could have kept Hoshoryu chest to chest and not given him that escape route out the left side, which he used to pull off the winning move.
Ura’s face after this is a little too “thank you sir, may I have another” for my liking. The vibe I get is that Ura is happy to be taking part and not driven to be the best out there (unlike his opponent on this day).
This kind of attitude makes Ura very fun to watch. But when he’s a komusubi, facing truly elite opponents, the act feels like a defense mechanism.
Day 4 vs. Takakeisho
A reprieve on Day 4. With Takakeisho hurting his back, Ura gets the fusen win and gets his record to 1-3. Takakeisho has had a lot of joy against Ura in the past, so I think our boy is pretty lucky with this timing here.
Day 5 vs. Kotonowaka
On Day 5 Ura’s run through murderers’ row continued as he met future ozeki Kotonowaka. Ura is able to push Kotonowaka back off the tachiai, but I think that’s down to Kotonowaka game-planning for a katasukashi here.
Watch how Kotonowaka stutter steps in the opening clash, inviting Ura into his body. Kotonowaka then starts to focus on the right side of Ura’s body, and considers putting both hands around that shoulder and pulling down. He gives up ground while he tests this out, but seems totally confident that he can stop Ura from pushing him all the way out.
As he targets that shoulder, Ura surprises him with a strong arm grab that almost pays off. However, Kotonowaka is able to put on the brakes early and pull his arm out of danger, preventing Ura from pulling him all the way across his body and onto the ground.
After Kotonowaka pulls the fight back into the centre he again looks like he’s setting up the katasukashi. But he aborts that plan when a better opportunity presents itself. As Kotonowaka circles away to look for an angle on the shoulder pull down, Ura stumbles forwards slightly. This allows Kotonowaka to circle even more to the outside and get on Ura’s back.
When Kotonowaka sees the middle of Ura’s back, he keeps himself central and shoulder barges him out for an okuridashi victory.
Kotonowaka’s approach here is what I wish we’d see more from Ura at times. I think Kotonowaka came into this bout hoping to get Ura with the katasukashi. It’s a move he used brilliantly throughout this competition and a squat, low charging Ura seems like an ideal candidate for it.
Kotonowaka worked hard to set the move up, but when a better opportunity arose, he took it. In doing so he sacrificed a more show-stealing move for something more mundane, but effective. I can just see what would have happened if the roles were reversed. Ura would have hung onto that katasukashi even when there was a chance to get behind his opponent, maybe even pulling the opponent back towards him as he went for the flashier finish.
Day 6 vs. Takayasu
On Day 6 Ura met his fellow komusubi. And, again, he goes for a Hail Mary move in a very bad position. However, unlike previous bouts, he didn’t sacrifice a good position to do so. He was in trouble against Takayasu from the jump.
Everyone knows Ura comes in low, so Takayasu decides to catch him coming in and hold him upright (which makes an opponent easier to push back). He gets some joy pushing Ura back, but Ura shows how strong he can be when he can sit down on his weight. Takayasu recognizes he’s going to have a tough time pushing Ura once he’s gotten set, so he switches tact and snaps a good grip on his belt with his right hand.
Takayasu then uses his over arm position to go for a throw. He doesn’t have a leg on the inside, though, so the best he can manage is shuffling Ura over to the straw. Without a leg to trip Ura over, Takayasu is hoping that he can send Ura over with his upper body alone and then crash down afterwards.
Ura shows great balance to stay up and survive for a moment. He hops along to the boundary hopping for a way out. When he runs out of space it becomes obvious to him that there isn’t a good way out of this.
As he’s hopping he’s also forcing Takayasu to hop along with him and test his balance, too. In the replay below you can see how well Takayasu does when hopping out to the side to give him both space and stability. Watch what happens when he finds the straw with his toes.
As soon as he feels the straw, Takayasu uses that slight lip to push off and create the rotation he needs to send Ura down.
Ura feels that rotation begin and then he makes a choice that I just hate.
Ura knows he is heading down and he goes for a last ditch move. At first I thought Ura kicks his leg up to try and make Takayasu spear into the ground before he does. Which is an awful choice to make, since their positioning here means only Ura will land first once this happens. And that’s exactly what does happen, he kicks up that leg and succeeds in bring Takayasu’s weight down alongside him, which only increases the impact Ura takes on his head and neck.
After watching this a hundred times, I actually think something else is going on here. I think Ura is trying to do a front flip and that he accidentally catches Takayasu’s left leg while doing so. The clash of legs prevents Ura from continuing the move (which likely would not have worked anyway). After the clash of legs, Ura does not have enough rotation to sufficiently tuck his head and land on his back and that’s what results in this scary impact to the head and neck.
If you look at Ura’s right arm in that replay, he tucks it and brings it into his body. I think that’s him using that arm to try and generate more rotation, as well as keeping it away from the clay.
I don’t think Ura would have been able to pull that move off, even if their legs didn’t clash. I think he has too much weight leaning down and away before he starts the move. If he would have made it, though, that would have been a sumo highlight for the ages (and I think we’ve established that this is Ura’s main goal in the sport).
Day 7 vs. Daieisho
Ura is 1-5 on Day 7 and is faced with another brutal match-up. Daieisho was one of the best rikishi around in 2023. He faltered whenever a championship or a promotion was in front of him, but that shouldn’t take away from how good he was in the vast majority of his matches (he is also one of the few top guys who didn’t miss a bout).
In this match Ura’s reputation for coming in low hurts him, again. Daieisho is ready with an upward thrust off the tachiai. Daieisho wants him upright so he has a massive target (Ura’s chest) for his power thrusts.
This top down replay is really revealing of what goes down. And it shows that this is another example of Ura getting a really fortuitous position, but failing to either recognize or capitalize on it.
Watch how Daieisho bounces off Ura to side off of the opening clash. Daieisho over commits with that opening thrust and finds himself moving towards the seats. What does Ura do, though?
He puts a hand on Daieisho’s chest and seems to turn him back towards him. A lot of credit needs to go to Daieisho being able to pivot so quickly and get back in the bout, but Ura should have really made him pay for wading out into that bad position.
Ura needed to do just what Kotonowaka did to him, get square behind Daieisho and push right in the middle of his back. After he misses that opportunity, Daieisho goes HAM and start firing away. His strikes prevent Ura from ducking down or loading up his knees, making it easy for Daieisho to drive him across the ring and out.
Day 8 vs. Wakamotoharu
Another day, another brutally hard match-up. This time it’s in the form of a much improved (and fired up!) Wakamotoharu.
Ura’s rep for coming in low is again taken advantage of here. This time Wakamotoharu uses that knowledge to place a shoulder striker right onto Ura’s right ear. Wakamotoharu went with this opening a number of times during the basho, using it as a disruption tactic and giving him time and space to get two hands on the belt.
Ura takes the hit and then focuses on Wakamotoharu’s right arm, correctly assuming that Wakamotoharu is going to want both arms for his favoured yorikiri finish. Then Ura attempts the same arm pulling technique he tried on Kotonowaka.
It doesn’t work, though. He is able to pull Wakamotoharu back, but he’s not able to move laterally enough to swing Wakamotoharu across his body and out of the ring. If Ura is not circling away, with power, then all this move serves to do is force him backwards (which Wakamotoharu wants anyway). With Ura staying in front of Wakamotoharu (something Wakamotoharu helps ensure with a nifty lift of his left leg), it’s pretty easy for Wakamotoharu to shove him off the dohyo.
That puts Ura at 1-7, already fighting for his ranking.
Day 9 vs. Atamifuji
On Day 9 Ura is in a must-win situation to rescue any chance of a winning record. The match-makers finally give him a bit of a break. Atamifuji looked sensational in the tail end of last year, but in January he looked shockingly ordinary.
This is the first time these two have ever faced each other and it’s a match where Ura was finally able to lock up and complete a technique.
We’ve seen him go for katasukashi and shitatedashinage a lot during this tournament already. But against Kotonowaka and Wakamotoharu he wasn’t able to get enough force in pulling back or movement in his circling away to land them.
Against Atamifuji he executes perfectly.